Boredom can be a destructive feeling, leading people to zone out in meetings and classes—and in some cases, even to alcohol or drugs. But in certain circumstances, boredom can also be a force for good, becoming the spark that starts a creative process or leading to greater self-reflection.
Essentially, boredom is an emotion that’s a lot more nuanced than we give it credit for. It's also especially common in today's society.
Only in the last decade has there been much scientific research looking into the nature of boredom. In 2006, a study classified boredom into four different types, with a follow-up study published this month in the journal Motivation and Emotion adding a fifth kind of boredom, called apathetic boredom, to the list. The researchers involved in the study had 63 university students and 80 high school students answer smartphone-based surveys about their activities and experiences over the course of two weeks.
The upshot of the work is that it may pay off to be more aware of our boredom, either so we can rid ourselves of it or perhaps harness it more productively. Though we're all likely to experience every kind of boredom at some point, the work also shows that people may have a consistent boredom “type” that corresponds to their personality.
If you’ve read this far without getting too bored, here are the five types of boredom:
A person who is calm and withdrawn from his or her external world. Words reflecting this kind of boredom include “relaxation” and “cheerful fatigue.”
A slightly unpleasant emotional state associated with receptiveness to "boredom-reducing options," but not necessarily an active search them. Characterized by wandering thoughts, not knowing what to do, and a "general openness" to activities unrelated to the present situation.
A more negative feeling reflecting a sense of unpleasant restlessness and an active search for ways out of the boredom mindset. A person might think about alternative activities, hobbies, leisure, or work.
The highest levels of arousal and negative emotions. A person in a reactant boredom state has a strong motivation to escape his or her boring situation and avoid those responsible for it (such as teachers or a boss). Reflects significant restlessness and aggression. There are persistent thoughts about specific, "more highly valued alternative situations."
This kind of boredom is different from the others. Like reactant boredom, it’s also unpleasant, but a person experiencing it has low arousal and a lack of positive or negative feelings—in other words, a feeling of helplessness or depression. Of the high school students sampled in the study, 36% of boredom experiences were of the apathetic kind, which is worrisome given that other studies have shown that boredom, depression, and destructive behaviors are often linked.
How do you know which type of bored you are right now?
Thomas Goetz, the lead researcher of the work and a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, says the multiple types of boredom can be loosely characterized along two dimensions. First, whether it is associated with a positive (score of 1) or negative (score of 5) emotion, and second, by degree of arousal, from calm (score of 1) to fidgety (score of 5).
"You can assess your individual boredom by writing down the two numbers," he wrote Co.Exist in an email. "A bit simplified: 2/1 reflects indifferent boredom; 3/2, calibrating boredom; 3/3, searching boredom; 4/4, reactant boredom; and 4/1, apathetic boredom." (Other combinations of scores fall in between boredom types.)
If he can maintain his concentration, Goetz intends to continue his own research into understanding the nature of boredom. He wants to measure physiological signs of arousal, which could one day add a new component to wearable health trackers. He's also interested in investigating whether specific boredom types correspond to different age levels and cultures. "There are many important questions to be answered related to the boredom types," he says.